Iditarod -- Race Across Alaska
2008 Jr. Iditarod Winner
By Hannah Moderow

 Jessica by the finish line with her lead dogs.
Jessica Klejka, with lead dogs Pearl and Mayan, as they savor their 2008 Junior Iditarod victory on February 24, 2008.
(Photo: Courtesy Danny Seavey)

February 24, 2008—When Jessica Klejka was a rookie in the Junior Iditarod in 2005, she came in last place to receive the legendary Red Lantern Award. Three years later, only days away from her 18th birthday, Klejka captured victory in the 2008 Junior Iditarod on February 24.

It was not a race easily won. The nose of Klejka's lead dogs crossed the finish line only 2 seconds ahead of the lead dogs of Cain Carter, stepson of the legendary Iditarod and Yukon Quest champion, Lance Mackey. Quinn Iten, son of Iditarod competitor Ed Iten, finished only 3 minutes behind Klejka and Carter to round out the top three. It was a tight race!

The Junior Iditarod is a 140-mile race for mushers ages 14 to 17. The trail stretches over the first 70 miles of the main Iditarod Trail to Yentna Station, where competitors are required to take a 10-hour layover, before returning home the next day.

The race is designed to teach young mushers how to travel long distances with their dog teams—a stepping stone for the Iditarod, known as "The Last Great Race."

Almost every year, 18-year-old Junior Iditarod veterans move up to the big race. This year, Melissa Owens, Rohn Buser, and Jeff Deeter make their debut performance in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race after years of running the Junior.

The stars lined up perfectly on this year's Junior Iditarod. "Twenty-one teams started, and 21 teams finished. What could be better?" said Race Marshall Janet Willis. In long distance mushing events, mushers often do not complete the race. It is not uncommon for a team to get lost and have to pull out. Or sometimes a team finds itself unprepared for the challenges. "The kids did a great job," said Willis, who herself competed in the Junior Iditarod in 1999 and 2001.

The Junior Iditarod, however competitive it may be, is much more than just a race. The clock ticks, and a finish line awaits, but it is the test of being alone, and caring for the every need of your dog team that demands full attention and skill. The trophies are nothing compared to the sight of a pair of lead dogs trotting—sometimes loping—down the trail in perfect precision.

Ten hours of mandatory rest may sound like a lot of time, but not when you consider how long it takes for mushers to cook food for their dog teams, set up beds of straw, and get ready for the return trip. If you add in the camaraderie with other mushers, and the time it takes to build the legendary Junior Iditarod bonfire, you realize that competitors don't sleep for long—usually only an hour or two!

Klejka described her race as "fun and fast and perfect." She credited lead dogs Pearl and Mayan for the winning performance. From last place to first place, Klejka is living proof that winning takes time, perseverance, and that perfect weekend when the stars and the dogs line up just right.

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